previous
next



  ― 97 ―

The Incineration of Dictionary Ned

IT is a traditional belief with the sturdy people of the Riverine district that theirs was always “an honest man's country”—that in the elasticity of its atmosphere men of the shady sort could not breathe, and their methods would not work. Like many other good old beliefs this particular one had no warrant in fact. What with smuggling and “the rebate system” on the rivers and dummying and “peacocking” on land, I do not think, area for area, a region can be found in Australia where the device that is dubious and the dodge that is dark grew to such luxuriance. Once upon a time of very long ago, that was, of course. At the present day, it is unnecessary to state, the men of the Riverine are as guileless “as they make ’em.” The breath of the plains and the rivers is now an exhalation of innocence —of a surety. Such a dodge as is herein related would be of impossible happening now.




  ― 98 ―

The generation of settlers of which the parent-age was in the Robertson Land Act was, in truth, a very sad one. Morally speaking, I mean. As far as spirits and tempers went it was jovial and companionable, but the admirable comradeship which, on the surface, marked the country, hid feuds, and hatreds, and duplicities that were so far from admirable as to be detestable. Sometimes the disguise was thrown aside, and “the fine free-handed squatter” showed his teeth clenched menacingly, or the “enterprising selector” forgot his manners and threatened and boasted that he and his class would pick the eyes out of every run in the district, and the heart out of every run-holder. Sometimes the one was in fault, and sometimes the other; oftenest, both were in error. And thus, whether the Riverine sky smiled with exquisite delicacy of blue tint, or frowned with occasional sullenness, or glared brassily, the men who worked and schemed beneath it were driven by the folly and iniquity of the politicians to range themselves in one of two opposing armies, and to spend their energies in cutting one another's throats, instead of combining in the eminently useful work of cutting the throats of the legislators.

It was nothing but natural that some persons


  ― 99 ―
and things quite innocent of partisanship should get mixed up involuntarily with these class-battles and animosities; bankers, tradesmen, and clergymen with every wish to remain independent of both sides became entangled with one or the other, or both. So, too, the boat-owner, who earned big lump freights from the squatter for wool and stores, but who also made big profits on his own tradings with the selectors and tradesmen. Even the Government officials took sides.

But of all the men, and things, and institutions that, having no immediate relation to the adversaries in the great battle of Free Selection versus Squatterdom, yet became involved with the fortunes of the fray, the most singular item was the corpse of Dictionary Ned. And the story of the way it did so is also an illustration of the lack of honour in the achievement of one's ends which widely characterized the Riverine men of the period. The trick by which Ned's corpse enabled the race between the Currency Lass and the Pride of the Darling to be won by the former was, in one aspect, justifiable. But certainly, in several others, the reverse. And this is the case where the predominant qualities give the tone to the whole proceeding.




  ― 100 ―

Dictionary Ned, dying in Hay Hospital, had desired with his latest words to be cremated, or as he termed it “incinerated.” “Cremate” or “cremation” were not in his dictionary; “incinerate” and “incineration” were. In this epoch of the early seventies, when the disposal of the dead by burning was mooted, the latter terms were as often used as the former, but both expressions were as novelties, and the thing expressed was more novel still. Accordingly, when poor old Dictionary had “gone inside,” the Riverine Grazier, of Hay, and the Riverine Herald, of Echuca, each put forth a claim for the honour and distinction of burning Ned. Also—for the profit.

Ned was known on the rivers—well and favourably known—and nobody in the flush times of the Riverine thought anything of travelling one hundred miles to do respect to a dead acquaintance. In ordinary circumstances Ned would have had a glorious funeral, and the local publican a rousing time, but when his obsequies were to comprise no ordinary hearse and ostrich-feather business, but the genuine novelty of a cremation, there was every reason to look for an inrush of visitors, intense grief, and deep drinking. Consequently, each of the patriotic and bibulous


  ― 101 ―
editors of the two influential papers named, demanded that Ned should be finally disposed of “in his own important and leading centre.”

Echuca won the point—not, it is to be suspected, by any superiority of logic on the part of its editor, or of body in its local brew, but owing to the fact that Boyd, the Echuca bank manager, had possession of Ned's funds. He wired Mr. Grundy, forwarding agent at Hay, to “send Ned along by first boat. Dispose of him here.” Mr. Boyd's word in this particular case was law. It was often law in others, too—and deuced expensive law at that.

Ned, you may remember, was bargeman on the Royal Duke, the barge of the Currency Lass steamer. And as the Lass and the Duke were topping up with back clips at Pollard's Wharf at the time Boyd's wire came to hand, it was the easiest thing in the world to slip Ned in his coffin aboard the craft to which he had been attached. As they dropped down into the mid-stream the hands from the other boats in port joined the loafers and lumpers on the wharves and cheered. Every person of standing above the average departing by coach or steamer, was sped by a cheer from the Hay people at that time. A


  ― 102 ―
prisoner going to Deniliquin to be tried and hanged, and the judge who would sentence him, a newly-married couple, or, as now, a corpse—it was all one to Hay. How the cheers would spring forth—and the throats would get dry and dusty and be washed out. Disappointed as Hay was at losing the chance of seeing curious, prosaic old Ned transformed by fire into a poetic white salt, it would not refuse him the farewell, as he lay in his shell under the tarpaulin aft in the barge. The sight of that elongated object was touching—and a splendid excuse for drink. Hay folk always disliked drinking for its own sake. They appreciated an excuse.

Between Hay and Nap-Nap the trip of the Lass and her barge was uneventful. Somehow, every one on board had expected something to happen. It was no unusual thing to pick up a coffin at a wayside landing for transport to the nearest township or to Melbourne, but there was, when the crew came to think about it, something eerie and peculiar in carrying a stiff’un to be burnt. And the river men were almost as superstitious as sailors.

Without the same reason for hating to have a parson on board that Jack at sea has, a boat-hand grew morose when a white-choker was seen among


  ― 103 ―
the passengers; though there was no albatross to daunt him as it poised itself on a magnificent length of tremulous pinion, to entrance him with malign glance, there were land-birds which infected him with their mystery; and if the mermaid did not spring from the water to lure him to ruin, still the yellow wave was alive with weird creatures, whose murmurs could be heard in the still night when the boats were tied up, and the moonlight splintered through the gums and acacias on the banks. And so the nervous system of the Lass's crew was shaken severely by the knowledge of their defunct passenger's destination.

“ ’Tis a-temptin' the Arl-maäghty, that it be,” said Cornish Jim, the Methodist fireman, who would sing Wesley's hymns in a sweet tenor in the intervals of blasphemy. “I do b’lieve as they maäght ha’ wa'ted a bit, and so he be warnted to be buirnt, don't ee’ think? ’Twarn't as if Satan ’udn't do it arl in good time!” And Jim spoke in all seriousness the sentiments of all. Nevertheless, M’Farlane's, Nap-Nap, was reached without incident. At M’Farlane's the Lass found the Pride of the Darling taking in wool and passengers. Though owned by different men, they were twin boats from the same yard, built on the same model, with equal engine-power, but, owing to the Pride


  ― 104 ―
having been generally worked on the Darling, while the Lass was a Murray and Murrumbidgee boat, they had never been matched in a trial of speed. And it was a problem on the rivers which was the better boat. The general impression was that they were much of a muchness, and that any test of superiority would really be decided by their skippers.

The Currency Lass was commanded by Ted Gowan—one of the early-time chaps who had risen from the position of an ordinary deck-hand, while the Pride was skippered by one of the big firm's newer importations. Forrester was a decent fellow enough, and ready to adjust himself to the river conditions. He was, however, like so many new chums, too much disposed to toady to mere wealth, and “the big-frontage man” was to him an object of veneration, quite irrespective of the consideration as to whether the fellow he made much of was anything more than the nominee of a bank, or was in the least degree admirable regarded merely as a man. Consequently, he was “just the sort” to tumble into all sorts of pitfalls on the rivers in an epoch of transition. In the disputes between squatters and selectors he could not help taking sides, while grim old-stagers like


  ― 105 ―
Davies, and Dorward, and Lewin steered right ahead, and let the troubled waters close up after them as best they could.

As the Lass steamed by the Nap-Nap landing, she was gladly hailed by Dick Pillar, mate of the Pride, who was hungry for a tussle.

“Hello, the Lass! In a hurry, Ted?” he called. “Can't yer wait for us at the town, and we'll race yer up to 'Chuca?”

“How long'll yer be, Dick?” Gowan said, as he slowed down. “I'll go slow if yer won't be long!”

“we've another score of bales, an' the fadges to stow, an' then to trim her. We'll be arter yer in a hour!”

“Right you are then. I'll wait at Cramsie's an' fix up terms. I'm on for a skim if your skipper is!”

And then Dick bethought himself. Perhaps the new chum cove wouldn't be willing to give up command to him, Dick, as it was essential he should for a race on equal conditions. To pit Forrester against Gowan was to lose the race before the start. Gowan could wriggle his boat and barge across “wet grass” without the thrilling of a nerve, but Forrester was desperately afraid of the shifting stream and its mysteriously changing


  ― 106 ―
currents and snags and sandpits. Would Forrester consent?

Dick put the question before his skipper. He urged how the rivers had always wanted a fair heel-and-toe race between the sister craft, and here was a quite unusual chance to oblige ’em— loading about the same—next to no passengers to kick up a fuss when the pressure-gauge was getting suspiciously high—fair weather—and the race would be over before the bosses (owners) would know anything about it. The bosses did not object to racing per se, but they had, in view of the risk thereto attaching, a repugnance to rapid night-runs, and it was, of course, a prime condition of a contest that there should be no stoppages.

Forrester was dubious. He was not certain, he said, how the bosses would take the thing at all, win or lose. And he hinted—he did not say— that Gowan knew the stream ever so much better than he did.

“Oh, the bosses won't say nothin' when it's all over!” urged Dick. “It's the knowin' of it in advance they can't get over, for it shakes up the insurance people a bit. An' as to runnin', why, sir, I'll stick at the wheel till I drop jest to have a show of puttin' ol’ Ted Gowan down.”

Forrester was aft when Pillar had approached


  ― 107 ―
him, talking to a passenger just come on board from the station homestead. This man, the Hon. Samuel Darke, M.L.C. (Victoria), was a well-known figure in every spot familiar to Riverine men. Half Irish, half Scotch, he was as tall as one of the first breed of Hawkesbury cornstalks, and strong with the strength of the brute. His intelligence, though it smacked of the brute too, as it was more cunning and instinct than reason, had carried him upward from the duffing-yard of the Manaro gully-raker to the proud position of a frontage shark in Riverina, who was spoken of with admiration at Scott's in Melbourne, and Esplin's in Hay, and Petty's in Sydney. Why the heavy jowl, the eyes that wouldn't look straight, the coarse ridge of fleshy nose, and the overhanging brow had not hanged him before the “gully-raker” had merged into the “honest squatter” and influential legislator, suggested questions as to the peccability in the way of bribes of the rural police. He was one of the chieftains of the moneyed host, who had sworn by the altars to beat and bounce the “cockie” out of Riverina, and was altogether so great a man that the British-born soul of Captain Forrester worshipped him immensely. Was he not the favoured of the principal of Britishers’ gods, Success?




  ― 108 ―

Now, Darke had overheard Dick's appeal to his skipper, and, conscious of his supremacy, interfered unasked.

“No——racin' while I'm aboard, skipper! Ye don't come that game wi’ me!”

“No, oh no, of course not, sir,” and Forrester, forgetting that he was no longer an apprentice in an ocean-liner addressing his omnipotent captain, touched his cap.

“An' I'm d—d if I don't get the marks of that other fellow's wool! If he carries clips of any of my friends I'll take care he get's a fine rap over the knuckles!”

“Yes, sir—just so—Mr. Darke! That's what I feel, sir. ’Tisn't fair to consignors to run risks!” Then, turning to Pillar, he said—

“No, mate! Can't think of racing!” So Dick retired for’ard.

As he passed the engine-room he spoke disgustedly to the engineer.

“My colonial oath! Hanged if I don't start a blooming subscription to buy th' old man a soot of plush an' false calves.”

“What's he been a-doin' of, Dick?”

“A-touchin' of his cap to that——Darke!”

“Wot's th' rivers a-comin' to when a full-blown skipper does th' flunkey to an old cattle-duffer?


  ― 109 ―
Th' rivers is a-goin' to the devil, an' no mistake.”

This was at Nap-Nap landing. When, however, the Pride had covered the thirty miles or so to Balranald, an alteration in the resolution of her skipper and passenger was effected with unexpected ease. A company of young fellows from the Heytesbury country, in Western Victoria, had just selected on Canally and neighbouring stations, and some of their number were on their way to Echuca to shift down their stores and waggons. They had booked as deck-passengers by the Lass, and were all impatience for the arrival of the other boat in order that the race might be entered upon.

Gowan, whose craft's steam was up, wood in, and passengers aboard, sprang from Cramsie's stage to the Pride's deck, as the latter slowed in to take up a lot of hides.

“Well, Forrester,” he said, “what d’ you say? Are you on to make a match of it? First through 'Chuca punt—losers to give winners a spread at Jimmy Iron's?”

“No!” said Forrester shortly, “I'm not on!”

“Phew, you're not, ain't you? What the dickens did you mean then by putting Dick


  ― 110 ―
Pillar up to ask me? Have you grown funky on it?”

“No, I haven't. But business is business—and our owners don't pay us to run races and risks at the same time!”

“Our owners! Speak for your own, my boy,” retorted Gowan nettled. “I'll speak for mine, who trusts to my judgment and doesn't keep me in leading-strings like some other coves have got their skippers!”

Then he turned to go. As he did so he caught sight of the Hon. Sam Darke.

“Good-day, Mr. Darke. ’Ope yer well! I want Forrester here ter race us ter 'Chuca, but he isn't game.”

“I'll take care he ain't game,” said the M.L.C., with characteristic coarseness of tone.

“Well,” rejoined Gowan, annoyed, “my passengers, though they're only selectors, ain't afraid of a bit of a flutter.”

“Oh, oh, you're carryin' some of those—— blackmailin' beauties, are you?”

“I don't know nothin' about blackmailin,’ an' as they ain't M.P.'s on the land racket I don't think as they does, either!” shouted Gowan, as he was crossing the gang-plank.

“D—n you! I'll make you pay for that sooner


  ― 111 ―
or later!” exclaimed Darke, furious, as all his class were, at the insinuations referring to their well-known land-sharking methods.

“Oh, keep your hair on, Mr. Darke!” replied Gowan; “an' if yer want to make me pay, back that bloomin' Pride in a match with me to 'Chuca, an' she's bound to win, y’ know, when she's you aboard. You bring good luck wherever you go, don't ye—'specially to the cockies an' dummy crowds!”

Darke, irritated at these words, discovered a perception of a way in which he could take down this impertinent skipper. He turned to Forrester, whose notions of propriety were being grievously shocked by the language of his brother skipper, and said—“Forrester, are yer in racin' trim?”

“Well—yes—sir, if you really wish it.”

Darke, without answering, called to Gowan, “Look ’ere, you cheeky dog, if your —— black-mailers 'll back you to a ’underd, money down, I lay two to one on th' Pride!

And while his challenge was exciting a sensation among the passengers and crew of the other boat he chuckled himself into good-humour by the consideration that “he'd got ’em there. he'd risk two ’underd with pleasure, seein' as ’ow the loss of a ’underd would break the ——” This was


  ― 112 ―
an occasion when his old-time bullockese was of distinct value as a mode of expression.

After a hasty conference the challenge was accepted by the Currency Lass party. While the crews of both boats eagerly wooded up for the fray, so as to avoid needless stoppages, a stake-holder was appointed. A colonial experiencer, returning full up of his experience to Melbourne, en route for his mother's Kensington drawing-room, offered his services, but was treated with scorn by both parties. They applied to him with unnecessary indelicacy of phrase the old query— “Who shall guard the guardians?” Peter Campbell, bush missionary, also on his way to Melbourne for a mild dissipation after a fairly successful journey among the Edward and Wakool stations, was also repudiated. Peter was well known, and “they didn't like to throw temptation in his way.” And, finally, Cramsie's manager being appointed with instructions to wire the amount to the firm's Echuca agency to be claimed by the winner, the stakes were lodged. Of a composite nature they were! “Cash-orders” on the shipping firms and stations were the main currency of the rivers, and the stakes held a


  ― 113 ―
superb variety of autographs of more or less financial solidity. Even the Legislative Councillor, who never travelled without gold—gold payments to dummies and their kin could not be traced!—took advantage of the opportunity to free his pocket-book of orders.

And then the conditions were drawn up on two halves of a sheet of notepaper:—The stakes to be lodged with Cramsie's manager—£200 on the Pride's behalf; £100 on behalf of the Lass.

Each boat to have a representative on the other. Day and night running.

First through the punt at Echuca.

The boats to start from the foot of Yuranigh Street, called after Sir Thomas Mitchell's famous black Yuranigh (whose grave enclosure was for some time used by a distinguished legislator as a cow-bale).

No warping over pinches and shallows.

Fair heel-and-toe work all through.

Fuel, cord for cord, taken in at Balranald, and no stoppage for refilling at wood-piles permitted. And—fuel not supplemented from cargo.

Last in the schedule of conditions, this proviso might not improbably prove the most important. Races had taken place in which an unscrupulous skipper had used consignee's casks of tallow as


  ― 114 ―
stoking-material for a furnace, paying the same out of the stakes thus illegitimately won.

They started from the crazy timber thing called the wharf, after a three hours' spell devoted by all hands on the two boats to adjusting top hamper, getting clean furnaces, trimming the barges. Opposite Yuranigh Street they shut off steam, and waited till Cramsie's manager passed a measuring-rod over the stacked cords of wood. The Lass's stock was, if anything, under that of the Pride. With much greatness of soul, the Legislative Councillor consented to a dozen sticks of firewood being shoved over to the Lass.

Then a brawny young blacksmith from the Camperdown country, Victoria, was dropped on the Pride as representative of the Lass, and the Lass received Peter Campbell, selected by Darke, to watch over the interests of the Pride on her rival. Peter's main spiritual—and spirituous— sustenance came from the squatters’ class. Hence Darke felt that he was safe with Peter.

And then, as the best available substitute for a pistol-shot—a reverberant cracking of Gory Sam from Tanga's stockwhip—and amid a roar of cheers, a full head of steam was put on. With a crash, and a splash, and a rattle, they ran off level. If


  ― 115 ―
the start meant anything, it should be a well-matched race.

A wire from Balranald had acquainted the Swan Hillites with the intelligence that at last the twin boats were “at it.” And, as they rolled by with a duck-like skimming—they were almost level —the people clustered on the banks at the crossing township shouted hints as to the state of the rivers, which might have been valuable if only they had been understood. And—but why particularize all points? Now one was ahead a tow-rope's length and now the other; each was greatly handled, and each answered to her builder's fame.

But, nearing Gunbower, they set down for the final struggle. Dick Pillar—Forrester was wise enough to give up the wheel and do the mate's work—and Gowan were sleepless, and yet each was fresher, so it seemed to their backers, than when the crafts left Balranald.

At Gunbower the Lass hung up for a couple of hours to cool her bearings for the final run in. Pillar would have done the same, but he was over-ruled by Darke, M.L.C. There are problems in applied mechanics that even the massive intellect


  ― 116 ―
of a legislative councillor cannot solve. Darke could not apprehend the impossibility of running incessantly with heated plummer-blocks, and how he chuckled and chuckled as the sound of the Lass's exhaust grew fainter and fainter, and utterly faded into silence.

“He would give those——(bullockese) selectors somethink to remember him by!” he swore.

But ten miles beyond Gunbower a dreadful message was communicated to him. The wood had given out! Overnight the stock had been drawn upon largely, and now, in the blossoming dawn, it was known that the fuel on board would not suffice for two hours' full running.

Heavens, how he effervesced with bullocky talk! He swore he would stoke the furnace with the (bullockese) carcasses of the (more bullockese) deck-hands!

“I'll be hanged if you do!” quoth Camper-down's son of Vulcan. “Deck-hands ain't wooden you see, Mr. Darke—not being members of Parliament, sir!”

Then he would have had the men's bunks and the cabin fittings broken up for fuel.

“No, you don't!” persisted the Camperdonian. “Not if I knows it!” And the Honourable the Legislative Councillor was beaten again.




  ― 117 ―

But one gleam of hope had he. The Lass must be almost in the same plight. And of fulfilment of this he was not deprived, for when, some time after the swift gliding of the Pride had given place to a subdued and pulseless motion that was almost retrogressive, she was gradually overhauled by the Lass, it was noticed that she too was running at less than half-speed.

As the Lass drew near to the Pride, Peter Campbell, missioner to the back-blocks, waddled for’ard and shouted. The words were no sooner out of his mouth than—it hurts me to have to relate so painful an incident—the closed fist of a sturdy child of the forest struck Peter's saintly paunch and doubled him up. “Shut up, you old fraud, you! If we're out of firewood that's our look-out, not theirs!” It would have been some consolation to Peter, as he revolved in some inconvenience for some moments, could he but have been sure that his words had reached the Hon. Samuel Darke's ears. As it happened, they did; and Darke and his sympathizers took heart of grace thereby. The Lass's people must be in equal trouble with themselves.

Unfortunately for Darke's two hundred, the


  ― 118 ―
distress of the Lass was, however, not quite so extreme as the Pride's. The Lass had something in reserve.

By slow puffings and feeble paddlings which were ever on the verge of ceasing to propel the crafts a foot further in their course, the two steamers had reached the bend which leads into the reach by Echuca Park. Twenty minutes’ fair steaming would see them at the pontoons of the floating-bridge, but how on earth were they to reach the point?

If, during the rapid running, the excitement on the boats mounted with the steam-gauge, there was, as might have been expected, no dropping off of enthusiasm as the steam power grew weaker and weaker. Progress, since Gunbower Mills were passed, was decidedly of an ironical sort, and, had the river been flowing with a masterful flood current, it is quite conceivable that the race would have been declared off from sheer inability to complete the last ten miles of their course. It was, however, sluggish, and the crafts managed, with laborious strainings, to make headway till entering the long park reach. Then even Darke considered the contest not worth fighting. Between the stern-post of the Pride's barge and the nose of the Lass there was a good forty


  ― 119 ―
yards. It was evidently hopeless for the Lass to conquer even that paltry distance and come level. Morally, if not by the precise conditions of the match, the race was won by the Pride.

He was saying as much to Forrester and Pillar, when a solid volume of murky cloud burst from the Lass's smoke-stack, and with increased firing the Lass and her barge shot forward suddenly.

“H——!” cried Darke. “They've been gullin' us!” Then he became too maddened to indulge even in the unqualified vocabulary of the gully-raker and the puncher.

As for Pillar and Forrester, they confessed the game was up. But how the devil did Gowan manage it? Had he burnt his boat's fittings? That was unlikely! He had no rich squatter aboard to stand the damage. Then, how had he managed? Had he not been running fair but had surreptitiously obtained fuel?

The way of it they learned from the reverend sufferer, Peter Campbell. As the Lass rushed past them, they could just grasp his words over the derisive cheering of the victorious party—

“Mister Darke, mon, they're boornin' the corpse!”




  ― 120 ―

It was even so. Dictionary Ned, by a happy thought of Gowan's, was granted his incineration: somewhat prematurely, perhaps, but on the final judgment of the river-men when the subject was debated later, in the way he would have most preferred. And he raised just steam enough to force the Lass and her barge the Duke through the pontoons.

Darke, at first, protested against the stakes being paid over. “Cargo was barred!” he spluttered. “D——n it! if it came to firin' up with cargo, I'd have shoved in half-a-dozen bales of wool!”

“Dictionary Ned wasn't cargo!” contended Gowan. “There isn't a boat on the rivers that ’ud take poor old Ned as cargo, except Locky M’Bean's Goldsb’rough!

“What in——would you call him then?” roared Darke.

“Why, an honorary passenger, sir, o' course!” retorted Gowan.

The popular verdict, and the stake-holder's, went with Gowan. And, thereupon, there was the most royal of sprees at the old Bridge, at which the memory of Dictionary Ned was toasted in the most solemn and impressive of silences.




  ― 121 ―

It was Cornish Jim who set the ball of talk rolling once more. “P’r’aps,” he said, “th' Arlmaäghty do know ’Is business best aäfter arl!” Jim was like most men. He approved of the Almighty's dealings with him when he was on the winning side.

previous
next